PRINT September 1991


POST-MODERN ESTHETICS HAVE replaced the Modernist ban on ornament and decoration with a broad reevaluation, expressed most obviously in the now-common taste for quotation and appropriation. This change of heart, however, can be puzzling, particularly in architecture, which by its nature must be functional. We’ve all seen buildings with decorations apparently glued or tattooed on a posteriori, used purely hedonistically and superficially. But these bad examples at least serve the purpose of showing us where not to go in framing an ancient question for the contemporary esthetic conscience—the question of ornament.

Though ornament is often discussed in terms of embellishment, of “decoration” in the pejorative sense of the word, the issues at stake in it are actually fundamental. Apparently marginal and secondary, ornament really stands at the intersection between ethics and esthetics, breaking apart familiar value systems and provoking deep psychic responses. It cannot be reduced to innocuous “style”—the mistake of much post-Modern esthetics. Despite one’s reservations about many of today’s practical applications of ornament and decoration (it’s unnecessary here to distinguish between the two), one cannot undervalue post-Modernism’s refocusing of attention on this vast expressive field.

If there is a move afoot to reevaluate ornament, vast areas and motifs of cultural activity both past and present begin to claim attention. The distinction between “major” and “minor” arts today is a decisive issue. It has long been questioned, of course, and there are certainly those now who consider it traditional and academic, barely worth mentioning. I would argue, however, that the superimpositions and intersections that have occurred between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” have in large part respected the old hierarchy, if only by trying so hard to knock it down. Decoration is still linked to “low,” “primitive,” or popular cultures that demonstrate an archaic but strongly expressive type of subjectivity. Yet decorative patterns constitute entire works of art in the most varied of cultures, from the Mayan temples of Uxmal or Chichén Itzá to the inscribed façades of mosques, from Persian carpets to Berber tattoos. Ornament is situated at the cloverleaf of this intersection between “high” and “low,” which is so heavily traveled today.

And here another concern emerges: the new interest in the cultural production of non-Western peoples. The issue has an important place on today’s agenda, in part because of the migratory flows we are seeing today (mostly from south to north, from east to west). Just think of the attention now given to world music, where an audience that once heard only rock now listens to Bulgarian and pygmy choirs, Eskimo sound games, Tibetan choruses. These grafts and semantic transcriptions have created a structural patchwork; pulling one thread of this multicolor weave transforms the entire carpet, since its parts are ever more closely integrated. The logic of the bricolage, of lifting materials and forms from their origins yet respecting their cultural identities, is implicit in the impulse toward ornament, and in the text that it produces. The attention to cultures that value ornament thus increases the need for a combinatory grand jeu, in which all periods, all regions, all cultures play a part, not so much to bear witness as to blend and reproduce.

Ornament is art without the artist, art without aura. It tells nothing but itself. If history is a story told, and if it is the story, whether verbal or pictorial, that demonstrates the scale of human time to us by depicting us in action, then there is something “inhuman” about abstract ornament, which tells no tale but spins out its infinite elaborations in silence.

Yet the quality of this silence is subtle. In the medieval or Renaissance fresco, decorative frames separate the individual scenes. These frames set off the picture space from the wall around it, defining it, reserving it for narrative. Their silence modulates this narrative’s clamor, its loquacity. The story—the life of Christ, say—is a continuum in which the ornament is a mute interval. Yet it is this interval that makes possible the perception of the narrative, just as speech needs pauses to make it understandable. And so in the great frescoes the frames are silent but articulate at the same time. The images speak of human belief, of life on earth and its ultimate destiny. The frames write in the abstract vocabulary and syntax of rhombuses, triangles, and polygons, creating sequences of geometries within which painting dances, plays, and puts itself on display, cut free from narrative and from the need to declare a meaning.

Ornament contains no drama, no suffering, no tragedy. It makes no effort to resist or stand out from the passage of time, but becomes part of time’s flow. A film stretched over the void, it accepts the world’s mutability and impermanence. Ornament reflects no ego, mirrors no glance. It proposes no mythology of the author or, more generally, of the subject. Ornament appeals to the preconscious layers of identity that control the dynamic, generative mobility of the hand, the pulsating and kinetic rhythm of the gesture. Ornament is a seed without a father.

Written Ornament
Does writing really belong to the writer? Is writing too perhaps “fatherless”? The lively relationship in handwritten script between conceptual expression and the movement of arm and hand to draw on, scratch, or caress the surface is fundamental to the creation of ornament. Entire ornamental styles are based on the motif of the knot or interlacement, the same kind of experimental play of line that must have gone into the development of writing. There is a sort of erotic attraction, then, between writing and ornament, each moving toward the other. In writing, a series of abstract signs takes on the semantic intelligibility of text. In ornament, such signs, though just as strictly ordered as in writing, are abstract and to a degree arbitrary.

This genetic tie is not just theoretical but historical. Both early Irish Christian and Islamic cultures—at around the same time, between 500 and 1000 A.D.—made an association between writing and decoration. Arab ornament reflects the idea that Allah is indefinable, not phenomenon but noumenon, pure endless mind. No representational image can suggest such a being, which must be described instead through infinitely extensible patterns of abstract signs. Since the infinite is an intellectual rather than an esthetic category, Islamic ornamental art is designed not for sensual pleasure but to generate spiritual yearning and aspirations to transcendence—to communicate, in an almost writerly way, a theological content. And Arab calligraphy, conversely, is as visual as it is literary. An extremely refined art, it is both perfectly legible and indecipherable: maximum order corresponds to maximum entropy. The sura of the Koran are arranged in labyrinthine configurations of highly detailed writing, the relationships among the characters and lines tortuous but inflexible. It is as if the Spirit to which this ornamental writing refers dwelt in a kind of stasis: if Allah is immutable, the still circle of the god’s being can contain no change, no progress, no human time. The principles of repetition and variation, however, may be admitted there, allowing of constant activity, constant life, without advance or alteration of state.

There were originally two styles, the early Naskhi letter—soft, enveloping, rounded—and the late-seventh-century Kufic letter, more rigid and massive. The geometricality of the radicalized Kufic letter was important, as it allowed an expansion of the text over the whole page, or even, as in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, over the whole wall. Ornament generates background, background more ornament, in a self-perpetuating, potentially endless rhythm. As in an allover Jackson Pollock, there is no focal point, no perspective. The surface is transformed into a “garden suspended in air,” as the Koran calls Paradise. A semantic content exalting Allah is expressed in a hypnotically vibrating line that runs like an electric shock through the entire text.

The monks of Celtic Ireland, copying and recopying by hand the sacred texts of Christianity, created another type of ornamental character. In the early illuminated manuscripts only the initials were decorated—enlarged and embellished with cinnabar. By the seventh and eighth centuries, however, the monogram of Christ, say—the letters XP—might cover a whole page, like a musical score, every stroke branching and repeating apparently indefinitely. This writing is actually an experiment in following the labyrinthine language of line through endless superimposition, repetition, and transformation. Combining Celtic spirals and trumpet shapes, elongated Anglo-Saxon animal figures, and Mediterranean interlacements, the patterns in the Lindisfarne Gospels, from the late seventh century, and the Book of Kells, from the early ninth, also wrap abstract motifs, faces, and microscopic but perfect angels into a delirium of geometrical order. Line twists into key patterns, ties into minuscule but perfect knots, or swirls into spirals spinning within spirals. It is as if this ordered, coldly splendid chaos were an attempt to demonstrate infinity within the borders of the page. Once again, ornament implies transcendence, spirituality, the eternal. The vocabulary here is so rich, and the syntax allows of so many variations, that only a divine eye could take in their infinite complexity. And indeed, how many myths of origin make scripture the gift of a god?

Tribal Ornament
Ornament’s original departure point is the body, the measure for every culture’s earliest rhythms and symbolic memories. Alois Riegl, in his great Stilfragen (Problems of style, 1893), writes, “More elementary than the need to protect the body with fabric was the need to decorate it”1 —to reshape or tattoo it. Since marks on the skin are usually symbols recognized and shared by the social group, the decorated body is a form of writing.

In decorating the skin, then, the body painter is not merely ordering the objects depicted but is speaking through them. Fixing these objects as ornamental phrases on a living support, the painter inscribes the differences among them according to the rhythm the body provides. (There are analogies here, of course, with music.) It is this rhythm that articulates the syntax of the ornamental phrase. When the French linguist Emile Benveniste analyzes the Greek term rhythmós, he could almost be describing a decorative Arab fascia, or a stylized Native American motif: rhythmós is “form overtaken by what moves, what is mobile and flowing, form minus organic permanence; it’s like the pattern within something fluid. . . . This is form as the unexpected, the temporary, the changeable.”2 Thus in the old Kwakiutl body painting of the Pacific Northwest, according to Franz Boas, a totemic animal—a frog, say—was drawn on the body to make the body itself a frog. Because of the drawing style’s symmetrical divisions and rhythmic repetitions, Boas calls it “split representation.”3 What mattered here was not how much the painted frog looked like a real frog, but the unity, though complex to the point of abstraction, of the distortions, intervals, and repetitions through which the animal’s shape was written on the body, obeying the living plasticity of torso and limbs.

When the body itself becomes ornament, where is the boundary between the two? Where is the distinction between structure and decoration, function and embellishment, necessity and superfluity—between seriousness, norm, legitimacy, on the one hand, and play, waste, expressiveness, on the other? Western philosophical, ethical, and esthetic thought is based on implicitly hierarchical oppositions like these, making ornament, considered as a kind of optional extra, a distinctly subordinate class. With tribal peoples, however, such categories oscillate and fuse. Axioms often thought to order not just esthetic but all human experience lose their identities.

Some Native American peoples, for example, traditionally used an elaborate ornamental stitching in their animal-hide clothes. In the classical Western theory of ornament, a decorative device is added a posteriori to something preexistent. Yet if these ornamental stitches were undone, the clothes would fall apart.4 Both structural and sensual, utilitarian and hedonistic, such tailoring makes ornament an integral necessity—a scandalous paradox for traditional Western esthetics. And it is far from an isolated example of this kind of fusion in what ethnologists call “restricted cultures” (commonly and arrogantly termed “primitive”). Here, objects are rarely imagined as autonomous, independent things that someone at a certain point may decide to decorate. Instead, decoration is basic to their structure. Vases, baskets, tools, the human body itself acquire the completeness of their existence, their ontological status, through the combination of decoration and function, which are thought of as one. In face painting, for example, the decoration creates the face, brings it into existence, gives it human and spiritual meaning. “Decoration,” Claude Lévi-Strauss writes, “is actually created for the face; but in another sense, the face is predestined to be decorated, since it is only by means of decoration that the face receives social dignity and mystical significance. Decoration is conceived for the face, but the face itself exists only through decoration.”5 Thus face and decoration, structure and ornament, become not opposites but elements in tension. Within a common space, they establish a dialogue.

In tribal cultures, more care and skill usually go into the decoration of an object than into its efficiency as a tool. A fundamental property of ornament, in fact, is that it is offered as a form of waste, luxury, excess, expenditure without compensation. Both the creator and the viewer of repetitive ornament may lose their self-awareness in its hypnotic, mazelike patterns, which have long been associated with ritual, trance, meditation. A sort of mathematical delirium seduces us into a hallucinatory ecstasy. If ornament dissolves the conceptual bases of Western thought, then, it also upsets our very ego.

The Modern through Matisse
For many, the very meaning of the 20th-century avant-garde lies in the idea of its progressive elimination of ornament, its search for a sort of formal ground zero. Now the Modernist avant-garde must have many things on its conscience, but the desire for a tabula rasa as far as ornament goes is not one of them. It’s true that the avant-garde, by definition, must hunt for novelty. But Modernism was never as monolithic as various post-Modernists claim, and if we fail to see its diversity and complexity, if we reduce it to the erasure of any and every tradition, we lose a great deal not only of the concept of the avant-garde but also of its practice.6

The languages of the decorative tradition are distributed in various ways, contradictory but intense, throughout the experimental laboratory of the Modern. Just one case, but an exemplary one, is the art of Henri Matisse. No Modernist artist went farther to undercut the idea that ornament is somehow subordinate. It is “a grave error of judgment,” he wrote, “to use the term ‘decorative’ pejoratively. . . . things have to be decorative. Substance does not suffice; appearance is required as well.”7 For Matisse, expression and decoration were the same thing. Through all his art, from the Fauvist work through the late papiers découpés, the two were inseparable. In the final works, pattern engulfs space, and faces become masks, losing their identity to the decorative principle. “I don’t paint things,” Matisse said, “I paint the differences between things”8— as in the rhythmós of tribal ornament, or in the decorative frames of a Renaissance fresco.

For Matisse, also, ornament was the East, and Islam. His architectural and decorative ideas for the Vence chapel seem clearly Islamic in origin, and the lightness of spirit in Eastern ornament guided him in his everyday work. “I am the ballet dancer or the tightrope walker,” Matisse wrote, “who begins his day with hours of bending exercises, so that every part of his body obeys him when he comes to translate his emotions into a series of dance steps, slow or lively, or into an elegant pirouette before his public.”9 This acrobat Matisse is Arab and Chinese, Hindu and Persian. Supremely indifferent to the strictures others have extrapolated from Western art history, he translates the traditional languages of ornament into the codes of modernity, ignoring the classical rules of perspective and eliminating the illusion of depth that was so great an achievement of Renaissance art. The late, very decorative gouache cutouts involve a close dialogue between the art and the surrounding space. In the end (as recorded in marvelous photographs), Matisse would pin the cutouts directly on the walls of his room, without frames or any other confinement. The interplay here between tradition and the spirit of the Modern is extraordinarily light. The environment itself is freed from the limitations of convention and of physicality—it becomes “a garden suspended in air.”

Dialectics of Ornament
Even in the classical tradition of Western esthetics, decoration hasn’t always been secondary. Rather, since the days of Vitruvius a distinction has been made between “good” ornament and “bad.” “Good” ornament is understood as originating directly from the structure to which it is applied—as if the structure somehow called for it or needed it. “Bad” ornament is hedonistic, sensualist excess, redundant, extraneous and even harmful to the structure. In many ways the Modernist esthetic fits perfectly within this older tradition. For Le Corbusier and for 20th-century functionalism as for Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, ornament is acceptable or not depending on how it brings to a conclusion the evolutionary processes inherent in the work’s structure.

Yet this distinction between “good” and “bad” ornament seems to me superficial, or, worse, a smoke screen concealing an underlying condemnation of ornament’s basic principles. It’s not always possible, for example, to separate the necessary from the superfluous, the primary from the secondary, the fundament from the supplement. Any attempt to reach some formal zero point of undecorated simplicity is itself a rhetorical stylistic choice: a derivation rather than an origin, it must develop out of a particular, pragmatic, directed use of a specific esthetic language. (The language that can be used “innocently” and “neutrally” does not exist.) The distinction between “good” and “bad” ornament, between necessary substance and optional, almost accidental supplement, is ultimately the rigid, and naive, distinction between true and false.

Furthermore, if we only accept ornament to the degree that it grows out of structure, we legitimize it through principles that are not its own. Decoration that follows from structure and function is no longer strictly decorative. To criticize ornament because it isn’t structure is to deny its heart, to liquidate its destabilizing, paradoxical truth. (For ornament always contains deep layers of meaning.) To tolerate ornament only to the extent that it becomes its opposite is really not to tolerate it at all.

The point is not to establish a new hierarchy with ornament this time at the top. This is the error of many post-Modernist strategies, which are intended to go beyond the familiar ideologies but which end up simply reevaluating ornament—simply subordinating it to another ideological order. Actually, ornament undermines hierarchy itself, questions its legitimacy. It is necessary, then, not simply to exchange the prevailing values for new ones but to shift the old dialectical tensions and oppositions, the complex relationships between what has been at the center and what has been at the margins, so as to change their meanings and to transform the terms of reference. We will understand ornament only by freeing it from the values of true and false. That Native American stitchery, simultaneously functional and superfluous, can help us here.

The configurations of ornament are neither fixed nor predictable but continually collapse and recompose. The strategies at play in them are multidirectional. Ornament may seem to establish a sort of immobility, but it is at the same time open to constant metamorphosis, for its complex grammar is built out of motifs and patterns that autonomously regenerate and mutate, endlessly abandoning and reconstituting its basic forms. The paradigm for most abstract ornament is a principle of self-organization that relates to cybernetics and the dynamic systems of computers. This connection suggests that it might be appropriate to ignore the metaphysically “authentic” dimension of this kind of work and to interpret it instead as an art praxis—a nonauratic, light, nondogmatic yet all-pervasive form of esthetics, rather like the “weak force” of physics. This dissociation from notions of truth and authenticity allows a new framing of the idea of repetition, on which the decorative practice depends both visually and conceptually: if repetitions of pattern cannot be seen as deriving from some “original” form that is imagined as authentic and primary—there is, of course, no such form—then the classical division between copy and original, false and true, no longer holds. What is repeated in ornamental repetition has never been original. There is no lost prototype, only infinite multiplication.

This reinterpretation of the ontological and esthetic status of ornament must return in the end to the basic motivation behind it. Ornament is primary for humans, almost a genetic impulse. It is not in the least optional. The desire to decorate, to create nonrepresentational forms, recalls the luxury, waste, and gratuitous, nonuseful expenditure of energy that Georges Bataille called dépense. Ornament is inscribed within an economy of donation. It is a practice in which the subject loses its rationality, its self-legitimizing tendency, and falls into a dimension that recalls the etymological meaning of the Greek term ekstasis: to stand outside oneself. The impulse both to create and to look at ornament may be associated with a regression of the ego, with an unconscious, primary, archaic state rooted less in the codified symbolism of conventional language than in the babble of prelinguistic semiosis and repetition compulsion.

This is the most profound, vital dimension of ornament. The discourse here makes claims for gratuitous, unproductive consumption, and proposes a link, as Bataille suggests, to the ritual, the sacred, the sacrifice. In the basic esthetic and philosophical condition of ornament lies the suggestion of something we intuitively sense, something that distances itself from the rationalist logic of the West, or, better, that constitutes its outer limits, its extremities, something a step to the side and outside, something that never stops looking elsewhere. This description, of course, could virtually apply to the experience of art itself. More particularly, though, ornament shares the phantasmatic logic of what Jean Baudrillard called the simulacrum: it is freed from traditional oppositions of true and false, authenticity and derivation. It no longer recognizes such categories, yet it is not some Hegelian synthesis following from their dialectical thesis and antithesis. Rather, it neutralizes their authoritative, hierarchical potential. The logic of ornament and the logic of the simulacrum: two logics without logos. Can it be possible? Within the cage of concepts, no; within textual practice, yes.

Massimo Carboni is a writer who lives in Rome. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.


1. Alois Riegl, Problemi di Stile, 1893, Italian trans. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1963, p. 4.
2. Émile Benveniste, “La nozione di ’ritmo’ nella sua espressione linguistica,” in Problemi di linguistica generate, 1966, Italian trans. Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1971, p. 396.
3. Franz Boas, Primitive Art, 1927, English trans. New York: Dover Publications, 1955, p. 250 ff.
4. Ibid., p. 60.
5. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, 1958, English trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, New York: Basic Books, 1963, p. 261.
6. “We have overcome ornament, with effort we have liberated ourselves from ornament. Look, the moment is approaching, we await the conclusion. Soon city streets will gleam like white walls! Like Zion, the holy city, the capital of heaven. Then the task will be complete.” These biblical phrases come from Adolf Loos’ famous and much misunderstood Ornament and Crime, 1908 (Italian trans. in Loos, Parole nel Vuoto, Milan: Adelphi, 1980, p. 219). Yet Loos’ position, apparently radical in its refusal of decoration, is actually much more complex. “I have never maintained, as have the purists ad absurdum,” Loos clearly states, “that ornament must be eliminated in systematic and radical fashion” (ibid., p. 329). And if “every art is erotic” (ibid., p. 218), Loos emphasizes that “ornament in the service of woman will endure forever” (ibid., p. 330). Ad Reinhardt too understood the profound artistic spirit inherent in repetition: “The intensity, consciousness, and perfection of Asiatic art comes only from repetitiousness and sameness, just as true originality exists only where all artists work in the same traditions. . . . Real freedom in art, and the absolute essence that makes art the thing it is, can be realized only through the formula; in Asia this has been understood” (“Timeless in Asia,” Artnews 58 no. 9, January 1960, p. 34).
7. Henri Matisse, Scritti e pensieri sull’arte, ed. Dominique Fourcade, Italian trans. Turin: Einaudi, 1979, p. 289.
8. Ibid., p. 165.
9. Ibid., p. 125.